Prologue: The Runner

Her quick gasps for air rang through the alleyways she sprinted through, spooking her slightly as she strained to hear any footsteps hastening after her. Every shadow this night was a potential threat to her. Vaulting over the chain that protected this particular alley, she veered left onto the open road sharply. Stars glimmered down at her as the spaceport illuminated her path. Terrifyingly aware of the vulnerability this openness presented, she sped up, low to the ground, clutching the small metallic square to her chest.

There were still no footsteps that she could hear, but she knew they were after her. Possibly, she had gotten lucky and left enough confusion that it would be a while before they could pick up her trail. Cursing herself for not covering her tracks, she dashed up a side road and continued her trek, ignoring the stitch in her side.

She hadn't thought that she had enough time to be stealthy about her escape, or she would have done a better job covering it, she told herself firmly. Still, regret gnawed at her, clinging to her ribs like a vice. Thrusting these thoughts to the side, she focused on the towering structure ahead. Slowing only slightly, still gasping, she realized what she was seeing before her. It was a legend in the making: The old Benbow inn. Well, it wasn't so much old anymore; they had rebuilt it a few months ago after it burned down. It had been such a wreck before, really. Falling apart at the seams because the owner didn't make enough to cover the cost of refurbishing. Now, however, it was modern and at least twice the size it had been originally.

Everyone had asked where she had gotten the money, but the owner merely smiled and glanced at the picture of her son, waving away the question with an offer of more coffee. Or so she was told. She had never actually been up here. The girls in her dormitory had liked to gossip. They particularly like discussing the handsome son. Apparently he was in the Academy, training to be a space fighter. He often visited his mother, of course.

"First time for everything…" She muttered breathlessly, trotting up the hill towards it. She needed a place to hide out, and this was very conveniently miles away from the institute. In her head, fabricated excuses whirled and spun, grappling for the forefront. Finally she seized on one just as she reached the steps to the porch. Immediately, she made herself look as ragged as possible. Breaking off a bramble on a nearby bush, she snapped it in half to make it jagged, then plunged it into her shirt on her left arm. Wincing as it not only ripped through the fabric, but her flesh, she pulled it back and did it to the right side of her waist. Biting her lip to keep from crying out, she moved onto her right leg. Satisfied that she looked bedraggled enough, she threw away the branch and began limping up to the door.

"Help," she yelled, making sure to keep a strangled note in her voice, "Please!" Stumbling up the short amount of stairs, she dropped to her knees and pounded on the door. Her fresh wounds stung and in the back of her mind, she lamented the loss of her favorite shirt, but she ignored the discomfort. With a jolt, she realized she was still clutching the metal square. Pocketing it hastily, she had just enough time to hitch a scared, pain-filled look onto her face before the door was opened.

The girls in her dormitory hadn't been lying.